July 16, 2013

RECENT DEBATE about the future of school reform in the District has focused on a series of legislative proposals being championed by the chairman of the D.C. Council’s education committee. Getting less attention, but having perhaps as much potential to impact education, is the change in leadership of the union that represents D.C. school teachers. It’s not a good sign that the new leadership won on a platform that painted the incumbent as too compliant with reform initiatives being pushed by Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Washington Teachers Union President Nathan Saunders was defeated in a July 1 runoff election by a veteran teacher and union activist who promised to push more effectively against school system management. Elizabeth Davis, who received 459 votes to the 380 cast for Mr. Saunders, takes over Aug. 1 as head of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate, which represents about 4,000 public school teachers.

There’s some irony in Mr. Saunders’s defeat. He won election in 2010 by fiercely criticizing then-incumbent president George Parker for too easily going along with reforms — notably changes in how teachers are assigned and evaluated — instituted by former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Once in office, though, Mr. Saunders forged a cooperative working relationship with Ms. Henderson, and the two were reportedly close to finalizing a new contract proposal that Mr. Saunders called “groundbreaking,” with provisions for a longer school day and school year. What helped influence his thinking, Mr. Saunders said, was the 43 percent of public school students in charter schools and the growing numbers clamoring to get in. “No kids in [traditional] public schools means no teachers,” he told us. Mr. Saunders’s cooperation became a liability in his bid for another term, calling to mind Mr. Parker’s verdict about his own defeat in 2010: “I think any union president that is pushing and getting in front of reform, you take a risk.”

Ms. Davis rejected that notion. “I am not playing to the stereotype of what unions are supposed to be about. . . . I won’t have us boxed in as anti-reform,” she told us, stressing that reform needs to be done right and teacher input is important. She wouldn’t comment about contract talks, saying she needs to read the pending contract language. She expressed some skepticism about the effectiveness of a longer school day in boosting student achievement and opposition to Ms. Henderson’s push to get chartering authority for system schools; she also supports a cap on charter schools. Most troubling is her belief that teachers at charter schools should be unionized, a move that would threaten the flexibility that has allowed these independent schools to create new ways of getting disadvantaged students to achieve.

This was an election decided by a small percentage of those eligible to vote and an even smaller proportion of those who are purported to be represented. The question that now confronts Ms. Davis and the new leadership team is whether to stick with what makes for an effective campaign — what Mr. Saunders called the “fire and brimstone stuff that looks good, sounds good” — but fails to bring about improvements in the city’s schools.